Tax code reform is expected to be high on the US political agenda this year and the issue of tax breaks or subsidies for Big Oil is often tossed around as part of the discussion. However, despite receiving various tax incentives, oil companies pay more in taxes than many other US-based multinational firms.

In their dogged pursuit of sensational headlines, media companies love to make a big deal about the largest US company by market capitalization, a title that ExxonMobil and Apple have traded for the past few years. Exxon recently reported its fourth quarter and full-year 2012 financials and on net income of roughly $45 billion last year, which is slightly higher than Apple’s approximately $42 billion, the oil company paid about twice as much in income taxes.

Exxon paid about $31 billion in “income taxes” and Apple paid about $14 billion in what it reports as “provision for income taxes.”

Now clearly Exxon and Apple have very little in common as far as companies go and they maintain different fiscal reporting periods, so there is little on which to make direct comparisons and this is part of the reason for the income tax discrepancy.

Overseas effective tax rates for oil companies are defined by where the resources are located and they do not have the freedom to set up operations in low-tax-rate jurisdictions. Other companies have more flexibility to pick and choose tax-friendly overseas environments in which to operate.

Exxon’s 2012 effective tax rate was about 41% while Apple paid 25.2% during the comparable period. The US statutory federal income tax rate is 35%. Oil companies pay about 78% when operating in Norway, while developing nations seeking foreign direct investment will often offer much lower rates.

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